Titties & Goo: Diffractive Materialities, Agential Processes, & the Enduring Bodies of the Photographic Archive

Megan B. Ratliff

Palavras-chave: boudoir photography; Photographic materiality; arts-based research; facial recognition; 1980's UK; Hot To Manuals

Participação: on-line

This work aims to complicate standard histories of photography by highlighting often overlooked facets of photographic techno-chemical and digital materialities, thereby extending the discourse on photography’s interplay with various instantiations of its archives. Current scholarship overwhelmingly presents the history of photography as a chronological sequence of discrete technological developments, wherein many binaries are constructed (e.g. analog/digital, material/immaterial, authentic/artificial, vernacular/artistic).

This research aims to negotiate the merging of analog and digital photographic technology by forefronting the digitization process of analog photographic objects. Digital imaging technology mediates and is mediated by analog photographic objects and socio-cultural practice in the production of digital archives. It defines photographic genres which are sometimes discussed interchangeably (glamour and boudoir photography) and asserts that these genres operated as part of cultural practice in negotiation with photographic technology and associated ephemera ( ‘How To’ guide books). It continues my use of arts-based research practice to parse out issues of gender, representation, and the right to privacy. My primary sources will include technical manuals published in roughly the same time period as my collection of boudoir negatives. There is very little scholarship that integrates the confluence of surveillance, facial recognition, and found photographs of people that can be found using such technology.

This project draws on a body of artwork I produced in early 2021 called Inside the Boudoir, based on my previously mentioned collection. I grapple with the fraught issue of having potentially scandalous photographs of women that very much may still be alive. The process of scanning a color gelatin film negative and bringing it to the digital space opens it up to emerging visual economies and the gaze of human and artificial intelligence. Specific convolutional neural networks (CNN) are trained to analyze visual data. In using facial recognition CNNs, I found several models from my personal collection of boudoir photographs. Facial recognition software is sophisticated enough to accurately identify a person even when the two images being compared were taken approximately twenty years apart. Digital technology is often discussed as diametrically opposed to its analog counterpart, framing the analog as corporeal and digital as incorporeal. This is especially true in discussions of "old" dusty analog and "new" immaterial digital photography. By bringing arts-based research together with scholarship from art history, cultural studies, visual anthropology, STS, and queer-feminist theory, this interdisciplinary project seeks to bridge the gap between ontological and epistemological spheres of photographic knowledge.

A major blind spot in the history of photography is the situatedness of materiality in relation to the use and storage of photographs. This research explores new ways of conceptualizing analog and digital photographic histories, by orienting them around photographic materiality, rather than a chronology of commercially successful technological advancements. It questions the assumed analog-digital divide (among other binaries) in conceptions of photographic history, archival production, and visual practices.


Megan B. Ratliff - I’m an artist and doctoral candidate at Virginia Commonwealth University, in the Media, Art, and Text program. My work deals with historical photographic processes as entangled technological sites informed by cultural studies, visual anthropology, and photographic practices. In 2017, I earned a MSc by research from the University of Edinburgh in Interdisciplinary Creative Practices. And obtained a Bachelors of Humanities and Art, specializing in fine art and cultural anthropology, from Carnegie Mellon University in 2012. My artistic and scholarly work has been presented nationally and internationally and seeks to critically engage with various material histories of photography.